ATLANTA – After Kylan Johnson rocked Georgia Tech running back Lucas Johnson so hard on the goal line that the ball popped out, Pitt linebacker Cam Bright was faced with a choice. With less than three minutes left in the third quarter, his decision would prove to be crucial.
Bright could have fell on the ball and then fought for it at the bottom of a pile that would have followed. Or, he could try to dig the ball up and see how far he could go. For the former running back at Park Crossing High School in Alabama, the latter was the only option.
“I saw an open lane in front of me, so I tried to scoop and score,” Bright said. “My eyes got real big. I haven’t really touched the ball in college football, so it was a flashback to my high school days.”
The Pitt redshirt sophomore grabbed the ball with his two mitts, busted through a seam in all the chaos that followed the ball popping loose and sprinted 79 yards the other way. His decision to grab the ball and take off proved to be a 10-point swing and perhaps the most important play in Pitt’s 20-10 victory over Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium. on Saturday.
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When Johnson forced the fumble, Georgia Tech was on the four-yard line and trailing by just a touchdown. Bright’s return set up a 49-yard field goal by Alex Kessman to extend Pitt’s lead. Georgia Tech wouldn’t sniff the end-zone for the rest of the game.
“I was looking behind me, so that slowed me down a little bit. I think it was a big momentum swing,” Bright said. “I think we’ve just showed that we’re dominant. We can take over the game and really swing it.”
Indeed. Pitt’s win over Georgia Tech was a grisly one. At times, the game was grotesque and just awful to look at, if you’re a fan of offensive football, that is.
But for the Panthers’ defense, it was another showcase for their talents; to show that they can impose their will on the game and to tell the naysayers that – with this defensive unit – Pitt is to be taken seriously.
“The defense played another outstanding game. You win championships with defense. Another spectacular performance by them,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They were put in some tough positions in the first half with three turnovers and they just rise to the occasion. It’s an impressive group of guys out there.”
With the win, Pitt is now bowl eligible for the 16th time in the past 20 years, and for the fourth time in the Narduzzi era. Pitt remains in second place in the Coastal Division too and with three games left has a real shot at going to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game for the second year in a row.
“It just takes that monkey off your back knowing that’s done with,” Narduzzi said of being bowl eligible. “We don’t have to worry about that, we just need to get ready for North Carolina.”
Before Pitt focuses on Mack Brown’s Tar Heels though, let’s consider their performance against Geoff Collins’ Yellow Jackets a bit more.
Defense shows off
Pitt held Georgia Tech to 194 yards of total offense, which is a season-low for the Yellow Jackets. Even against the mighty Clemson, Georgia Tech was able to muster up 294 yards. But the Panthers proved to be tougher. Even a quarterback switch at halftime didn’t change the fortunes of the Georgia Tech offense.
Coming into this game, Pitt had the best pass rush in the country, leading the nation in sacks and sacks per-game. The Panthers added two more to that total on Saturday, and also had six tackles-for losses, wreaking havoc on Georgia Tech’s backfield.
While Georgia Tech doesn’t run Paul Johnson’s triple-option anymore, the Yellow Jackets still had a respectable rushing attack, running for 168.9 yards per-game before Saturday. But Pitt has the ACC’s best – and the nation’s sixth best – rushing defense, holding opponents to 85.9 yards per-game on the ground. Pitt won the rushing battle Saturday, yielding the Yellow Jackets to just 86 yards rushing.
And on third downs, the Yellow Jackets were helpless. They converted just two-of-13 of them against Pitt. They might’ve been better off using that down to punt and accelerating the process of getting the ball back.
Even when Pitt’s offense and special teams put the defense in tough situations, it stood strong. In the third quarter, for example, after Tech blocked a Pitt punt and started on the Panthers’ 12-yard line, the Pitt defense pushed Georgia Tech back a yard over three plays, holding the Yellow Jackets to a field goal.
“I would say we’re physical,” sophomore safety Paris Ford said. “We just try to get stops. That’s our job, to give the ball back to our offense… We play defense. We love to go on the field. When the offense scores, even when they turn it over, we’re always hype to go out there.”
Ford had six tackles and an interception in the game and also served as a captain.
The Panthers held true to their bend-but-don’t-break mentality, too. Georgia Tech could smell grass in the end-zone when they snapped the ball on the 10th play of a third quarter drive, but that’s when Kylan Johnson and Cam Bright teamed up for the play of the game. It was just the second time in his career that Johnson – a graduate transfer from Florida – had forced a fumble. He had five tackles and a sack Saturday too.
“I just triggered it. Whatever happened after that happened. I got up, they said the ball was returned for like 75 yards, so I was happy with the outcome I guess,” Johnson said. “I was hyped up. It was a good play by the whole defense.”
Bright’s scoop-and-run was Pitt’s longest fumble return since Brian Guzek ran one back 80 yards vs. Temple in 2001.
In all, Pitt’s defense forced two turnovers, came up with two sacks, allowed the Yellow Jackets to complete just 8-of-21 passes and rush for just three yards per-carry.
What’s more impressive is that the Panthers defense put forth that performance playing without two starters for most of the game. Starting star linebacker Phil Campbell III was disqualified in the second quarter for a targeting foul and senior safety Damar Hamlin did not feature in the contest.
Narduzzi said that Hamlin will play vs. UNC. Campbell will be a-go for that game too.
Mistakes on offense by key players
In what is becoming a trend this season, Pitt played in another tightly contested game. For the eighth straight time this season, the outcome of a Pitt game was decided by 10 points or less.
But the final score of the game might have not been so close had key players for Pitt’s offense played without errors.
On Pitt’s second drive of the game, junior quarterback Kenny Pickett overthrew a receiver along the sidelines and saw his pass picked off. Two drives later, Pickett threw another interception, but this time the ball bounced off his tight end’s hands.
The quarterback didn’t turn the ball over for the rest of the game, but continued to make mistakes that made folks scratch their head, like completing a two-yard pass when facing 3rd-and-15.
“It was inconsistent again. Not where we want to be,” Pickett said of the offense’s performance. “We got to protect the ball better, starting with myself… We’re nowhere near where we want to be. We haven’t peaked yet.”
The third turnover Pitt committed was when Maurice Ffrench fumbled after catching a pass. Narduzzi contended that Ffrench’s knee was down, but the referees disagreed. And Georgia Tech scored their lone touchdown of the game on the next play.
“Offensively, we just have to learn how to not turn the football over,” Narduzzi said. “We moved the ball well. We took what they were giving us… You can’t worry about it. Kids are trying to make plays. I think Kenny did a nice job in the second half of just throwing it away and not trying to squeeze in stuff.”
Pickett did find the end-zone in the second quarter, connecting with Shocky Jacques-Louis for the sophomore’s first career collegiate touchdown. Pitt’s other touchdown came off a wildcat play ran by Vincent Davis that went 61 yards.
It wasn’t just the players who made mistakes though. Because of some questionable clock management and play-calling near the end of the first half, Pitt did essentially nothing in what should’ve been a scoring opportunity. Pitt had the ball at their own 40-yard-line with a timeout and 1:05 to play: they ran for a loss, threw an incomplete pass and completed a short pass for six yards, then let time expire.
If Pitt’s offense was as good as its defense, the Panthers would be talked about as one of the best teams in the country. Alas, they struggled against Georgia Tech, couldn’t find the end-zone against Miami and outscored FCS Delaware by just three points at home. Needless to say, Pitt still has a lot of work to do on that side of the ball.